Outrunning Cancer

How getting off the couch can give you a leg up on beating your cancer. 

By
Karen Asp

Conventional wisdom for those going through cancer treatment has always been to rest up and preserve your energy. But now research is showing that exercise may not only help prevent cancer but can also benefit those who already have it—and Don and Jen are living proof. Read on for their inspiring stories. 

“I made my body strong so I could endure the toughest treatments.”

While pregnant with her second child in 2007, Jen McManus noticed a birthmark on her thigh had changed. Her doctor biopsied it, and it came back clean. “I didn’t have a family history of skin cancer, so I didn’t think about it again,” says the now 31-year-old from Austin.

Until, that is, she began training for her second triathlon in 2011. She’d completed her first triathlon the year before and was so pumped by the experience she decided to do another. Five days before the triathlon, Jen returned to the dermatologist for acne issues.

The doctor noticed the birthmark and had it retested. A few days after completing her second triathlon, Jen was diagnosed with Stage III melanoma cancer, which had spread to her lymph nodes. “My husband, Adam, and I decided to fight,” she says. “I wanted my kids [now 7, 5 and 3] to know that their mom fought as hard as she could.”

Jen underwent three surgeries and then began a year of high dose interferon, a drug that stimulates the immune system and lowers the risk of melanoma recurrence. Doctors told her this plan, which involved taking interferon every other day, was so hard that most patients quit within a few months. Yet Jen fell back on her fitness habits to strengthen her resolve. “I treated it like a fitness goal,” she says. “I knew I would just have to push through.”

Doctors also warned that she’d never be able to continue her normal workout regimen, but Jen didn’t listen. “The stronger I could make my body, the more I could fight off the cancer,” she says.

Going to the gym “wasn’t always pretty,” Jen says, adding that she was often battling a low-grade fever and had to rest frequently. Yet fitness gave her something the drugs couldn’t—energy, and a release from the mental demons that plagued her. “When you hear the word cancer, you automatically think death,” she says. “When I was in the gym, I could forget about what was going on in my head and focus on moving and breathing, which made me feel alive.”

To celebrate the end of her treatment, Jen, Adam and her brother, Mark, completed a 100-mile bike ride through the Livestrong Challenge in October. “It was hard because my leg hurt, but it was so worth it—just to know that I could achieve another victory,” she says.

Today, Jen’s tests show no evidence of cancer, and she’s already training for another triathlon. “By staying as active as possible, I feel like I can put up a better fight. Having cancer doesn’t mean I have to lie down and take it.”

 

Published
October 2013